I was recently painting my bathroom which is the worst room to ever have to paint. There are so many items to paint around and behind. By the time I had made my way around towel racks, the bath tub, all the trim, and the vanity, I had lost my enthusiasm for the project. Next up was figuring out what to do about the mirror. I had two options. I could take the mirror completely off the wall and paint behind it which would require a trip down to the garage for tools, more time and more mess or I could quickly paint around the mirror and no one would ever know.
This scenario reminds me a lot of the term “technical debt.” A company incurs technical debt when it makes decisions that hamper its ability to maintain and enhance a software or hardware-based product in the future. For example, in the interest of time, a feature may be implemented in a way that is quick and easy but less flexible. Later even small changes are difficult and time-consuming.
Another situation I have seen many times is a company with a complicated product that has been developed by an independent contractor. A one man show can be a cheaper alternative to a larger consulting firm, but when the contractor flakes out or doesn’t have time to work on the project any more, the company is left to find a new engineer. Of course bringing a new engineer up to speed takes time and money not to mention that the loan shark of your technical debt has a knack for showing up at the most inconvenient times.
Just as with monetary debt, technical debt cannot always be avoided and may, at times, be used strategically. In any case, the decision to take on debt should always be an informed one. A good engineering consultant will raise a red flag when technical debt is on the horizon, offer alternatives and provide guidance through the decision-making process.
Maybe it was my experience with technical debt, but just as I started to paint around that mirror, my mind flashed forward a few years to a time when we would decide to replace the mirror with something more modern, a little sleeker . . . and undoubtedly smaller than the existing mirror. By that time, the leftover paint would be dried out and the color match system at the hardware store isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There would be no touching up the unpainted area behind the mirror. A new mirror would mean repainting the entire bathroom again. I put down my brush and headed to the garage for a screw driver.